Why shouldn't you trust a foreign family to look after your teenager? Jennie Bristow grills the senior British policeman who is behind the panic about potential abuse on exchange trips and home-stay visits in Europe
Exchanging trust for fear
'You wouldn't let your children go and stay in somebody's house down the end of the road if you didn't know them. But you'd send them 2000 miles on an exchange trip and not ask any questions.' Earlier this year detective chief inspector Chris Gould of Avon and Somerset constabulary hit the headlines with a shock story for our times. The home office had just given him £20 000 to research the dangers of abuse facing children staying with 'host families' around Europe, and to make recommendations about how to regulate the home-stay industry. Gordon Blakely of the British Council, a major funder and facilitator of exchange visits, gave DCI Gould the keynote speech at a conference on the risks facing young people abroad. The press jumped on board, printing lists of horror stories about kids having to sleep in cupboards and being watched in the bath by their host fathers.
Why, after over 30 years of kids jetting off on exchange visits, should we start panicking now? Because, apparently, it has only just occurred to the authorities that the home-stay industry is unregulated. Whether your child goes on a school exchange programme, to a commercially run language school or even on a trip with the Guides, you are sending your bundle of joy to a stranger who could, quite literally, be 'anybody'. All you have to go on is an intuitive trust that these foreign strangers will not molest your children. And in these fearful times, trust is no longer enough.
The unregulated nature of the home-stay industry is not new, and there is no evidence that child abuse is common or increasing. The industry has come under the spotlight now only because society increasingly perceives strangers as a potential danger. Gordon Blakely told me that 'the world has always been a happy place, but in the past few years society has uncovered all sorts of predators': a shift in perception, not a new threat. But the fact that home-stays, like every other area of a child's life, contain even the remotest possibility of abuse is enough to spark a panic - a panic to be fuelled by DCI Gould and his mates in the home office.
Before we began the interview, Gould handed me a leaflet produced by his force, headlined 'The Child Protection Team - finding the hidden victims'. The 'hidden victims' are those children who don't report abuse, and Gould's team has the brief of hunting them out and getting them to testify. It is precisely because so few kids report problems with exchange or home-stay visits that Gould assumes there must be enough 'hidden victims' out there to give him a job for life. 'You don't necessarily get official complaints made because of the nature of the abuse we're talking about. So of the dozens and dozens and dozens of cases I have come across' - anecdotally, and often dating back some years - 'I think only two have ever been reported to the police'. Only two. Okay. Even Gould's 'gut feeling' about the extent of abuse is only 'about one per cent' of all home-stays, with 99 per cent of children getting through the haphazard, unregulated system of home-stays with no major problems. But to Gould, the actual extent of abuse is not only unknown, it is irrelevant, since 'even if there were just one case it's one case too many'. Never mind the millions of kids who have a positive exchange: the one child that has problems is the only one that counts.
When you start looking at the potential risks in a largely unregulated industry, you do not need proof or statistics to make you press the panic buttons. Pure fantasy will do. So when I tentatively suggested that school exchanges know the families involved through their pupils, and therefore had their own informal method of regulation, he immediately presented me with an alternative scenario. 'Many of these schools don't place them all with their own parents. So what you get is little Johnny who's from this school: his mum and dad will put up one of the French kids when they come over but his auntie, who lives three roads away, she's also quite happy to do it as well. So whilst they may know Johnny's family quite well, they know absolutely naff all about Johnny's auntie...whose husband happens to be a sex offender. As an example.' Wow. You just don't know with anybody, do you?
The fear of 'stranger danger' has already had an impact on some voluntary organisations whose trips abroad involve home-stay visits. Ceri Dingle, director of the youth exchange charity WORLDwrite, has taken children on trips to Europe, Japan, Ghana and is about to take a group to Brazil. She describes a shift in parents' attitudes to home-stays over the past six years: where once parents were happier for their children to stay with families because 'the kids had less chance to get drunk and go wild like they do in hostels', now parents tend to push for a group-stay in a dormitory. Austin Stickley, who coordinates the exchange programme which I went on at school, told me that the number of children wanting to take part in the 'Staffordshire-Limousin Experience' has plummeted from 490 at each end in 1990 to only 150 at each end in 1998. No doubt there are various reasons for this, but I would be very surprised if the current fear of strangers has not played a big part in discouraging children and their parents.
It gets worse when you realise that the paedophile under the bed is not DCI Gould's only concern. Like much of the child abuse industry, he is problematising the everyday, redefining as 'abuse' some of the most commonplace experiences of kids on exchange visits. Gould's definition of abuse covers 'the whole range': anything from being given 'inadequate food' or 'the same food' to 'a small room', from 'discipline' to 'verbal abuse', from 'being present at domestic violence' to 'being beaten up by the sons of the family' to 'sexual abuse'. Serious and thankfully very rare problems - criminal offences against children - are here conflated with the kinds of things that spoilt British kids moan about all the time, and grouped together under the official title of 'abuse'. Suddenly we move from the chance-in-a-million that your child will be placed with a serial rapist to the guilt-trip that if your child has had a bum exchange trip you have allowed them to be 'abused'.
Aart Smith runs Avalon Travel, a commercial youth travel agency based in Brighton, which pays local people a small amount of money to act as host families over the summer. As he explains, many of the complaints his students come out with are usually the result of 'a misunderstanding or a cultural thing'. Such as? 'We get students who think they have had cat food for instance', he laughs. 'Or they think the family are drug addicts because there are needles in the fridge, because one of the family has diabetes. We get all sorts of funny things.' DCI Gould tells me that he is appalled by the fact that kids can tell their parents horror stories and be met with a dismissive response: these children, for him, are clearly some of the 'hidden victims' of abuse. But maybe these children, like those at Avalon Travel, just get the wrong end of the stick.
When I went on my first exchange trip, I thought my penfriend's father was a sexist pig and believed the row her parents had downstairs one night was bound to culminate in a thump. Present at a scene of domestic violence and too traumatised to tell anybody? No: an overactive imagination. On my Spanish exchange trip at age 17, I shared a cramped room with a younger, flirtatious and bitchy English girl who was exchanging with my penfriend's brother. Inadequate sleeping arrangements? I coped. The girl concerned was convinced that the family father was a pervert: for no reason at all outside of her own fantasies. I could give DCI Gould a whole list of stories I have heard from my fellow exchangers and he may well term them 'abuse' but, unfortunately, kids do lie and moan and exaggerate. By making a big deal out of these gripes, Gould and his sponsors in the home office are embarking on a nasty, divisive project: helping to institutionalise mistrust and suspicion between families across Europe, on the basis of nothing more than their own warped imaginations.
By the end of our interview, I find myself bemused by what exactly DCI Gould hopes to achieve through this research. Regulation? But as he admits, 'it doesn't matter what regulation or legislation you have, it [child abuse] can still happen'. The end point of his research will be that the procedures used by those organising home-stays will be tightened up somehow. For now, he is content with what he has already done in terms of 'raising public awareness' about the potential dangers kids in home-stay programmes face. Yet it is precisely this 'awareness raising' that worries me.
Gould tells me over and over again that 'the last thing we want to do is ruin the industry' and that he thinks there are 'lots of cultural and educational benefits' to exchange visits. I believe him, I really do. But the starting point for his research - that you cannot trust any family without asking endless questions and bringing in more and more regulations - has already attacked the very foundation of exchange programmes. Once you put into the minds of parents and children that other families should be treated as potential abusers, inter-European harmony is off the agenda. What kind of 'cultural benefit' are you going to get from staying with a family whom you suspect have some kind of base motive for wanting you in their house? What kind of 'education' is it that teaches children to be as wary of the German parents of their penfriend as they are taught to be of the stranger down the street, and to hold up cultural differences (discipline, food) as cases of abuse?
Ten years ago, I was 13 and scared. I got off the plane at Limoges airport in central France and was whisked into the middle of nowhere by a family who could have been 'anybody'. Many times I was homesick, many times I wished I had gone on holiday with my friends instead; a few times I cried in bed because my penfriend had said something I suspected was an insult but which I did not quite understand. For all this I had a good time and learned far more than a bit of French vocabulary. What I learned was that 'cultural' differences are nothing compared to the fact that families, everywhere, are much the same: they want the best for their own kids, they want the kids they are hosting to be happy, and they would never deliberately hurt anybody.
Trust of other - foreign - people was once the biggest gain of home-stay visits, as you landed upon them in your defenceless adolescence and took them as your parents for a fortnight. Now these same visits are set to become an exercise in mistrust, as parents demand police vetting and constant supervision and put their offspring on a plane with a list of what it means to be 'abused'. Would you want that for your child?
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998